"Having two children in the house can be tiring, but I have 35, so it is exhausting."
|At Thuy's Hoa Sen centre, kids play a folk game after school in an April afternoon as their dinner is prepared. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu.|
Nguyen Ngoc Thuy is smiling as she says this. The diminutive 38-year-old native of Thua Thien – Hue Province in central Viet Nam actually is, in fact, a de-facto guardian for hundreds of disadvantaged children.
Thuy runs Hoa Sen (lotus flower), a private centre for the protection and care of disadvantaged children. The centre is based in Huong Ho Commune in her mother's home district Huong Tra.
Standing on the banks of a local canal, Thuy's centre comprises two small, pretty houses on a 200sq.m land plot. It is home to 35 children and three women who've leaned on Thuy's generosity to escape difficult situations and work as caretakers.
Apart from those living in the centre, Thuy helps 350 students of different ages by covering of their school-related expenses. These students are from former floating communities that have been resettled in Phu Mau, Huong So, Phu Hiep, Phu Hau, and Kim Long wards by city authorities.
"She is the most kind-hearted person I have ever known," said Ho Thi Phuong, one of the three caretakers.
Phuong stressed that her remark was not merely based on gratitude for the help Thuy has given her, employing her and allowing her daughter to stay in the house, but on how she treated the other children living there.
Phuong, 56, had to leave home with her last daughter, an 11th grade student, to escape her violent husband.
She said Thuy takes care of even the smallest details for the children. "She even has woolen gloves for each kid when the weather turns cold suddenly.
"I see a brave, great mother in Thuy. She travels many times a day to and from the centre and hospitals to take care of any child who is sick."
Thuy's desire to engage in charity work was triggered after a trip to the commune in 2004, when she saw how hard life was for local floating communities in the aftermath of flooding.
"They were hungry, but could not find a way out on their own because they were not educated. I felt firmly that the only way is to get their children educated."
She started two kindergarten classes and had 60 kids who she helped through to primary school, but felt she was not being effective, that the children were not getting all the care they needed.
Thuy then started again in 2012 with a child, who'd been left behind by its mother, and then with other children who suffered abuse at home. She took them home and took care of them.
"I just had these four kids, but I had not registered anything with local authorities."
However, in just a year, the number of kids rose to nearly 20 as impoverished parents sought to give their kids a chance at improving their fates.
Then "my parents recommended formal registration to protect the kids, as well as myself."
Thuy applied in June 2013 and got the license to operate the district's first private childcare facility on the first of June, International Children Day, of the next year.
Her husband Garcia Jean, a Frenchman, has supported her fully. Jean first arrived in Hue in 1999, following the historic flooding in central Viet Nam.
Thuy and Jean have a four-year-old daughter and her family live near the childcare facility.
The facility has six bedrooms, two living rooms, a spacious dining and living room, a kitchen, and two washing rooms equipped with machines.
Children can return to their families for death anniversaries of their parents and grandparents, or during Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday. Their relatives' are welcome to visit the centre.
Commune authorities have assisted Thuy in ensuring security for the kids.
"Living here is so much fun. We play together every day. The food is so good and I have nice clothes for school, " said Le Van Luc, a 7th grade student. His younger sister lives at the centre as well. Their mother died in a traffic accident 10 years ago and his father married another woman later.
Phuong said rice, meat, fish and herbs for meals are bought from a local market while fruits, vegetables and mushrooms are harvested in the garden, where children help out.
The garden is in another 400sq.m plot of land that borders the centre, where Thuy runs a homestay service to make money to fund her activities.
Thuy said regular funds from France-based Les Sampaniers du Viet Nam and Grains de Riz pour un Sourire help meet the children's school expenses.
"I use profits from homestay service to feed the kids. But sometimes it is insufficient and Jean, who runs a travel agency in Hue City, donates from his earnings as well. His relatives in France also give frequent donations to the kids." Thuy said she welcomes all public donations that will help the kids get a better life in the future.
Thuy said that if the funds coming in from abroad stops, the 350 students from the resettled floating community cannot be helped.
But "the homestay and travel agency business is growing well and I believe the kids here in the centre will have a decent life," she said.
While she was smiling when she said that taking care of all the concerns of so many children can be exhausting, she was not joking.
Day by day, "I am working harder and expecting more and more for the kids.
Frankly, it's hard and there are times I burst out crying. But after the tears, I think about the brighter future the children should get, and everything is okay."